The rain had been falling all day and was still sprinkling lightly when the Eels rocked up to play the Storm at AAMI Park on Saturday night. The winner would go on to play the Roosters in the third week of finals, while both teams had experienced unexpected results in the second week – Melbourne by only scoring a single try against the Raiders, Parra by scoring eleven against the Broncos. Nelson Asofa-Solomona got things rolling with a massive fend on Mitchell Moses on the first set, laying the platform for a dominating eighty minutes from the home team.
The Storm’s first try was one of their most spectacular of the 2019 season – a long-range effort that saw Josh Ado-Carr run virtually the whole length of the field. Breaking through the line in the Storm’s twenty, the Fox dodged away from Blake Ferguson before getting inside Clint Gutherson, dancing over a low tackle from the Parramatta captain before throwing a dummy to elude Fergo a second time. While Waqa Blake downed him right on the line, he couldn’t complete the tackle, allowing Ado-Carr to slam down the football as Dylan Brown came in for a final effort.
Cameron Smith might have shanked the conversion off his left boot to keep it a four point game, but the Eels already felt desperate. At the start of the next set, Kane Evans was penalised for a shoulder charge, but Parra didn’t learn their lesson, as Maika Sivo was pinged for an even more overt shoulder charge on Ryan Papenhuzen two tackles later. While the star winger remained on the park, Gutherson was given a formal warning on behalf of his team, as the Storm chose to tap and go instead of taking the two.
Seconds later, they scored on the other wing, as a rapid right sweep saw the footy move through Papenhuyzen and Felise Kaufusi before Suliasi Vunivali stormed over the line for another four points. Once again, Dylan Brown was unable to execute a trysaving tackle, partly because Michael Jennings had overcommitted on the previous play. Once again, too, Smith missed the extras, but the Storm already seemed locked into a tryscoring groove akin to what the Eels had brought against the Broncos last week.
An error from Sivo got the Storm set up for their next try, which was simpler and easier than their first two four-pointers. While he hadn’t enjoyed a great night so far with the conversions, Smith demonstrated his consummate vision with the boot on this set, sending through a left edge grubber that ricocheted off Moses’ knee, sitting up perfectly for Cameron Munster to surge through and get it to ground before Reed Mahoney could get there in time. For a third time, however, Smith missed the conversion, meaning the Storm were only twelve ahead despite three straight tries.Embed from Getty Images
All Parra had to do was score a try to even up the contest, and they seemed to have their chance when Kenny Bromwich allowed the kickoff to bounce into touch. Yet an underwhelming kick from Gutherson allowed Melbourne to ferry the footy back down the other end of the field, where Vunivalu showcased his balletic brilliance to leap up right on the sideline, without going into touch, to pop back a Jahrome Hughes kick in field, where Hughes himself scooped it up, danced over a low tackle from Gutherson, and scored in a good enough position to ensure Smith’s first conversion.
By this stage Melbourne had dominated the game, racking up 77% of possession and making 109 all run metres as opposed to Parra’s 42, thanks to multiple dropouts, near-total control of the football, and an amazingly apathetic response from the visiting team. Fourteen minutes out from the break, they got yet another dropout, and another try, thanks to a Munster kick that initially looked overlong, only for Ado-Carr to chase it down right on the dead ball line as Gutho looked on in frustration.
No other winger in the game could have recovered Munster’s kick other than Ado-Carr, who looked dangerously fast even in slow motion. Smith was less successful with the conversion, missing another kick, and perhaps drawing on some of that frustration when he dished out two slaps to Reed Mahoney, who was on the ground without the ball, a couple of minutes later. Smith was centimetres away from the ref when it happened, so it was no surprise that he was sent to the bin.
Yet the Eels couldn’t capitalise on the twelve man team, with the Storm actually getting a shot at two more points when Moses was pinged for being offside shortly before the siren. Munster was no more successful than Smith, however, making the Storm 1/6 for kicks. Still, they got their fifth line dropout of the game right on the siren, while reminding Parra of the last time they had been kept scoreless during finals footy – when they beat them during the 2009 grand final.
Four minutes into the second stanza Parra got some good field position after an error from Curtis Scott, and then secured a repeat set after Kaufusi was pinged for being offside. While Manu Ma’u lost the ball immediately, and Papenhuyzen scooped it up for a big run and linebreak, Ado-Carr lost it on the next play, gifting the blue and gold another shot at the line. Yet this ended as badly as the last Parra set, with the Fox making up for his handling error by intercepting a wide Moses pass on the last.Embed from Getty Images
For a moment it looked like the Eels might still sail through on the momentum of their augmented field position, since Dylan Brown got them a dropout on the next set with one of the Eels’ best last tackle kicks of the night. This time, Moses got the wide pass across to Blake Ferguson, but the ball was just a little too high, forcing Fergo to reach so high to get it that it sent his wiry frame off balance, tumbling him over the sideline before he had any chance at getting the Steeden to ground.
This missed try was probably a turning-point in the game, since with a bit of momentum, and a few tries, the Eels had a chance at making a comeback during this second stanza. Fergo is also such a gymnastic player in the air, and capable of such incredible contortions on the wing, that it was a real momentum-killer for the Eels to see him simply lose balance along the sideline, especially since the error came more from his own timing than from the cover defence, which he could easily have eluded if he’d righted himself soon enough.
To make matters worse, the Eels now lost three players in two minutes, forcing them to reconfigure their game plan just when they needed to be consolidating. First, Gutherson was taken off the field, after his head knocked against the ground in the midst of a massive tackle from Vunivalu. A set later, Tepai Moroea and Marata Niukore were taken off for HIAs after bumping heads while trying to clean up Vunivalu, and were replaced by Kane Evans and Junior Paulo respectively.
Paulo had only left the field a minute before to make way for Niukore, leaving nobody left on the Parramatta bench but Daniel Alvaro as Niukore and Moeroa joined Gutherson for an HIA. The Storm took advantage of this shift immediately, and looked set to score at the end of a left sweep on the following set, only for Blake to put in the trysaving tackle of the Eels’ game to clean up Kenny Bromwich, before Sivo played at a Scott kick on the other side to give Melbourne the scrum feed.
In a final devastating spectacle, Smith and Hughes shifted the footy out of the scrum to Papenhuyzen, who leapt into the air and put the ball down with his right hand, somersaulting over it to elude the cover defence from Dylan Brown. It was the kind of try that Fergo should have scored, while the low point of the game for Parramatta came a couple of sets later, when Fergo, acting as fullback, botched a pass to Sivo, as the Steeden went skittling over the sideline and another try went begging.Embed from Getty Images
By the time that Asofa-Solomona scored in the final minute, the game already felt as if it had ended, bringing the scoreline to 32-0 once Papenhuyzen had added the final conversion. In the space of two weeks, Parra had gone from a 58-0 win over Brisbane to a 32-loss to Melbourne, and will need to think about how they can bring the Bankwest energy to other venues in 2020. On the other side of the Steeden, the Storm have secured themselves a date with the Roosters next Saturday night, for what promises to be a galvanising grudge rematch of last year’s grand final.